10 startup pitfalls you should try to avoid  

I have spent the past 15 years focused on accelerating startups. I was the first marketer or product marketer at four fast-growing startups, I have founded two companies, advised multiple startups, and evaluated 600 applicants for the Techstars startup accelerator. Here are some common startup pitfalls I have noticed over the years: 

#10 Targeting too many customer segments at once

Focus on a narrow segment of the market first. Then expand. As a startup, your resources are more limited than you might even realize. Every additional thing you do takes focus, time, and effort away from other things. Not only do you need resources to initiate each segment, but you also need resources to maintain them. Start by doing fewer things well and expand your reach as you grow and get more capacity. 

#9 Looking for a silver bullet

It’s easy to get obsessed with finding a silver bullet that will magically solve all your revenue problems. Reality is, they are incredibly rare, and often more luck than skill. What you need is to learn, and to learn quickly. Constant iterations will help you find a combination of activities that work. Your marketing leads and closed deals will most likely be the result of multiple activities happening at once, not one, single, brilliant idea that just takes off. Focus on the gold nuggets in your existing work and build on them. Constant improvements will give you the benefits of compound interest.

#8 Assuming the best product wins

Having a great product makes everything easier, but having the best product doesn’t mean you will win in the market. There are plenty of companies with “good enough” products that end up winning the market. It’s important to realize that in the end, it’s the best story that wins, not necessarily the best product. If a product lives in the forest but nobody hears about it, does it ever really exist? Your story is what connects the product to its intended audience and spurs them to take action. First, your product needs to solve a problem for an audience, your product does that, then the target market needs to understand why they should buy it. The importance of having the right story and positioning in the market is grossly underestimated by many startups.

#7 Pitching “cool” technology instead of a solution to a problem

With every new major technology trend comes a slew of startups that leverage it to do something new and exciting. Don’t make the mistake of focusing too much on the underlying technology in your positioning and messaging. Instead, focus on what the technology unlocks and the benefits it delivers to the customers. It’s a surprisingly common mistake that will slow you down or worst case kill your startup dreams.

#6 Using words that don’t mean anything or have been corrupted

Getting your story right, is surprisingly hard. As you create your positioning and messaging, you will find that filler or meaningless words find their way into your story or copy. Words like “better” or “cutting-edge” doesn’t mean anything unless you substantiate them, and words like “real-time” or “modern” have been used so widely that they don’t say much of anything anymore. Cut out the fluff and get as pointed and tangible as you can. It’s a process but try and chip away at it word. By. Word.

#5 Speaking in code

Have you ever landed on a website and been like: “But what do they do?”. Startups love using jargon and technical terms to sound sophisticated, but to your audience, it can feel like you are speaking in code. Get rid of technical jargon that doesn’t add value to your story. And if you have a hard time letting them go, save them for technical briefs and presentations. Describe your product or solution in laymen’s terms so that everybody can understand what you do and why that matters. 

#4 Having positioning that is too vague

Startups tend to attract people with big ambitions who want to chase a big, multi-national market opportunity. To get there, you feel your story and positioning should reflect those ambitions and for this reason, you are reluctant to go with marketing positioning that is “too narrow”. However, to include all these ambitions, startups often end up having positioning that target everyone and by virtue no one. That’s a problem. If you are not positioning your company’s offering so your immediate target audience immediately knows you are speaking to them, your positioning is too vague.

#3 Thinking too far ahead

Unless you are a multi-national corporation listed on the stock exchange, assume your positioning needs to fit your company stage now and one year into the future. Every business should do an annual review of its positioning and ask themselves, will this positioning hold true for the next 12 months? Startups love to incorporate potential strategic directions for the company or product and want to leave openings for that in the positioning. Future (potential) directions are irrelevant to customers today and just add noise to your story. Instead, optimize for today and the next 12 months, and update your positioning story when the current one no longer fits. Focus on the next step, not the staircase.   

#2 Neglecting to survey your target audience

When you are busy and in a time crunch, plenty of decisions end up being made without asking what customers or potential customers think or want. Market validation is a lot of work and calling lots of shots quickly feels like progress (it’s not). Without engaging your target market, you risk making decisions based on mood-of-the-day, flawed intuition, or outright guesswork. This can lead to a product offering and go-to-market strategy that misses the mark and costs you precious time and money. Instead, start with the internal discussion and create a hypothesis. Then engage your target audience, learn what they think, and use the insights to validate or invalidate your hypothesis. Better yet, ask a product marketing consultant for help. 

#1 investing in product marketing too late

Product marketing is a strategic investment. Unfortunately, too many startups bring on product market expertise too late. Without product marketing expertise you risk ending up with a product offering that nobody understands and your sales team doesn’t know how to sell. Product marketing is uniquely positioned to identify what the market wants and develop the story that makes your product resonate with the right audience. Not only can a product marketer help you avoid the pitfalls on this list, but they will also help accelerate sales, growth, and valuation.  

Are you ready to invest in your go-to-market strategy?

If you need an experienced startup product marketer to help accelerate revenue and growth, we should talk.

Written by: Anders Maul

Photo by: Louis Hansel


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10 startup pitfalls you should try to avoid

I have spent the past 15 years focused on accelerating startups. I have founded two companies, advised multiple startups, evaluated 600 Techstars startup accelerator applicants, and been a founding marketer four times. Here are some common startup pitfalls I have noticed over the years.

It all starts with the customer

A lot of startups start with the product and end up focusing too much on the cool technology that is underlying the product or service. It’s the build-it-and-they-will-come mentality, and it rarely works. The only way to know if you are telling the right story is by knowing your target customers deeply.

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